White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, November 8, 2006; 2:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin , who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 2 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org .


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk. What a day.

President Bush wrapped up his post-election press conference a few minutes ago. I'm eager to hear your thoughts about it, and about the election, and about the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and the nomination of Robert M. Gates to replace him.

Me, I'm in shock. Help me process this!

The election of course was dramatic. The resignation of Rumsfeld is a stunner. The nomination of Gates, who is very much associated with Bush's father, is amazing.

But even more astonishing to me was the "New Bush" I saw today in his press conference. Owning up to reality. Speaking well of Democrats. Acknowledging voter skepticism, and vowing to overcome it with deeds. Self-deprecating (rather than bullying). Who is this guy? Will it last?


Atlanta, Ga.: What do you make of Bush's comment that he deliberately lied about Rumsfeld staying on? Will Dems seize on this as proof he's willing to lie whenever it's expedient?

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good point. I almost fell out of my chair when I heard the exchange you're referring to. It went like this:

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Last week you told us that Secretary Rumsfeld would be staying on. Why is the timing right now for this, and how much does it have to do with the election results?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Right. No, you and Hunt and Keil came in the Oval Office and you asked -- Hunt asked me the question, one week before the campaign, and basically is are you going to do something about Rumsfeld and the vice president. And my answer was, you know, they're going to stay on. And the reason why is I didn't want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign. And so the only way to answer that question and to get you on to another question was to give you that answer."

Bush later explained further, and said that he hadn't actually met with Gates yet, nor officially accepted Rumsfeld's resignation.

But the message is still pretty clear: Ach, I was campaigning, you can't believe everything I say when I'm campaigning.

He added to that impression by being so graceful about the Democrats who he'd been viciously maligning up through Monday night.

What's particularly interesting is the idea that there is a difference between "Campaigner Bush" and "President Bush."

Is "President Bush" the "New Bush" I alluded to in my intro? Has he been "Campaigner Bush" for the last six years, and without another campaign ahead, that's what's so different?


Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Hi Dan,

What does it say about WH strategy when Bush finally accepts Rumsfeld's resignation after a U.S. election goes badly for the Republicans, rather than because of one his many Iraq screw ups? This looks like caving to political pressure, rather than some strategic move to make things better in Iraq.

Dan Froomkin: The Rumsfeld decision can and will be read in a zillion different ways.

Here's my gut reaction: Bush finally realized, sometime in the last several months, that his Iraq strategy was a big loser. Rather than announce Rumsfeld's resignation during the campaign (which would have had huge political ramifications, and would have undermined "Campaigner Bush"'s insistence that things were looking up) he's doing it now, when it can (and will) be taken as an example of his acknowledging the new realities -- both in Iraq and on Capitol Hill.

But that's just off the top of my gut.


Sewickley, Pa.: Dan, thanks for taking questions today. The president's news conference today was a real eye-opener for me. He actually put whole sentences together throughout the session. How do you assess his performance? Why, in your opinion, is he unable to talk that clearly more often?

Dan Froomkin: I think his performance was excellent.

I have long argued that Bush was ultimately not well served by his bubble.

With the bubble gone, Bush actually seemed much more... presidential.

I'm not sure, but I think you also saw a complete absence of the cheap rhetorical tricks that were his staples during the campaign: The straw-man arguments, the false choices, the blatant mischaracterization of his opponents.

Maybe I'm just in shock, and I'll regret this in the morning. But I think this election has been very good for him.


Washington: I think that Bush is working to make sure that the GOP has a comeback in 2008. He is a politician after all, and knows he has to play to different constituencies.

Dan Froomkin: I don't think that's what's going on at all.

I think he's thinking about his legacy.

I think he's realizing (and he said this several times today) that if he wants to get anything done at all during these next two years, he's going to have to work with Democrats.

I think he realizes he's got to change course in Iraq, because what's going on now isn't working.


Laurel, Md.: Is it possible that a President who can't be re-elected and a Congress that's been out of power for 12 years might actually deal seriously about Social Security reform or energy independence?

Dan Froomkin: Look, I'm giddy. But I'm not that giddy.

You'll notice that when asked directly whether he was willing to pull "partial privatization" of Social Security off the table, as an act of comity, he refused to say.


Austin, Tex.: So what happens to "The Boy Genius," "Architect," a.k.a. "Turd Blossom"? Will he keep his office in the West Wing or will he suddenly want to spend more time with his family?

Dan Froomkin: Who knows? Bush poked gentle fun at Rove today, in what I think was the funniest line of the day. Mike Allen of Time asked how Bush's book-reading contest with Rove was going.

Bush said Rove was winning, then deadpanned: "I obviously was working harder on the campaign than he was."

I would never have predicted Rove could ever be in Bush's doghouse. And maybe he's not.

But then again, I'm hearing chatter on MSNBC to the effect that the White House is telling reporters on background that Bush accepted Rumsfeld's resignation against Vice President Cheney's objections! And then decided to replace him with Gates -- a realist in the mold of Bush's father -- rather than a neoconservative ideologue as Cheney wanted.

Rove and Cheney on the outs? Karen Hughes sighted on Marine One? (See

today's column

.) What's going on????


Seattle: Dan--

Do you think Rumsfeld would be staying if Republicans had held the House?

Cheney is now without a significant lever of his influence. What do you think he's thinking in South Dakota, and do you expect him to resign within the next two years?

Dan Froomkin: For what it's worth, Bush said Rumsfeld was going either way.

But as I just noted above, this appears to be a huge loss of influence for Cheney.

I won't speculate about Cheney's future except to say that there will inevitably be a lot of speculation about Cheney's future.

Oh, and I wouldn't want to be out hunting with him today. Would you?


Burke, Va.: I think when a guy is shielded from reality -- like Bush has been for a good deal of the last six years -- and is surrounded by guys who tell him that the sun is shining, and that the wet stuff is just liquid sunshine -- a hard slap of reality can be helpful. It's possible, just possible, that Bush looked at the election results, and looked around at some of the dopes around him, and said, "Well, if you guys could be that wrong about the election, I wonder what ELSE you might be wrong about?"

Maybe piercing the bubble will be helpful.

Dan Froomkin: I just wonder who he'll turn to now?


Washington, D.C.: The cynic in me can't help but think the Rumsfeld announcement was timed to take away some of the glory and airtime for the Dems.

Dan Froomkin: I would agree, but they're kvelling. Rumsfeld's scalp is their first trophy.


Ithaca, N.Y.: Don't you think Bush would have been better off "accepting the resignation" during the campaign? That would have helped take it off the table as an issue.

Dan Froomkin: No, I think it would have brought the stink of doubt and failure to his campaign. It would have undermined "Campaigner Bush's" central shtick, which was that the fundamental strategy is sound and will lead to victory. Opponents of the war would have felt vindicated, supporters would have felt betrayed. Things might have gone even worse for them.


Valley Forge, Pa.: WOW! It seems that whatever the Baker Commission comes up with will be the future course of the Iraq effort, and maybe that was the plan all along. Reasonable assessment?

Can you speculate as to Gates' philosophy?

Did it seem to you as if President Bush has written off control of the Senate to the Dems?

Dan Froomkin: Wow indeed.

I felt Bush came awfully close to endorsing the Iraq Study Group, sight unseen. (Well, probably not sight unseen.)

Gates of course is one of the


of that study group.

And I know almost nothing about him.

Bush certainly didn't say anything specific about what Gates's leadership would mean to the war. And he did say one thing that bears scrutiny.

Describing Gates's philosophy, Bush said something like: "He understands that defeat is not an option in Iraq."

By contrast, if Gates is truly a realist, he understands that victory is not an option in Iraq.

And lastly, yes, he kept on talking about the Democrats controlling the committees, etc. etc. -- it sure sounded like he's given up the Senate, too.


NYC: Dan Froomkin: I just wonder who he'll turn to now?


Dan Froomkin: Nothing wrong with talking to the dog.


Clearwater, Fla.: Come on Dan. You've watched this guy for six plus years. Do you really believe all this "new Bush" nonsense? Have you finally drunk the Kool-Aid? Do you believe for a minute that he would exhibit that attitude if he hadn't just had his butt handed to him? Let's see how charming he is when faced with legislation to restore some of the legal and Constitutional rights he was so anxious to destroy.

Dan Froomkin: My argument is not that he would have behaved like this if he hadn't had his butt handed to him; my argument is that having his butt handed to him may be having a positive effect on him.

That said, your point is excellent. Let's see what happens.


Wilmington, N.C.: "I think he realizes he's got to change course in Iraq, because what's going on now isn't working."

Let's not get carried away now. You expect a 180 on three years of central policy? Mark my words, we will be having this same conversation about leaving Iraq in November 2008.

Dan Froomkin: The worst thing about Iraq is that even a 180 wouldn't solve the problem. You need a time machine.

So for the record, I expect neither a 180 nor a quick withdrawal. I may be giddy, but I'm not stupid.


Rich; Hayward, Calif.: Hey Dan,

Perhaps this is the actual human being Bush, suddenly realizing that surrounding himself with the sour and divisive Rove-Cheney-Rumsfeld was a big mistake -- a gamble that paid dividends in the short term, but spelled long-term doom for his legacy as an actual leader of a nation.

Dan Froomkin: You, too, are giddy!


Austin, Tex.: Karl Rove told us he was looking at different polls than the rest the country and the Republicans were going to win. On Nov. 8 is Karl Rove?

A. An Idiot.

B. Mr. Bubble-In-Chief.

C. Just doing his job as cheerleader-in-chief.

Dan Froomkin: Readers?


Washington, D.C.: Did anyone ask Bush about that whole "a win for the Democrats is a win for terrorists" shtick?

Dan Froomkin: Yes. He shrugged it off as another artifact of the campaign.


San Ramon, Calif.: Dan Froomkin: I just wonder who he'll turn to now?

Isn't it apparent he's turning to his FATHER? First, calling upon James Baker to figure a way out of Iraq. Now, calling upon Robert Gates to carry out Baker's plan?

Dan Froomkin: Good point.


Los Angeles: Looks like Rove forgot to refill his Rx for genius pills. Do you think we have seen the end of the Republicans talking down to the citizenry?

Dan Froomkin: Maybe that's what it was: Bush wasn't talking down today, at least not nearly as much as usual. He was just talking.


Bethesda, Md.: D: A Liar.

Dan Froomkin: Another option.


Chicago: Is someone ever going to ask Bush why he (and admittedly almost every other Republican) insists on referring to the "Democrat Party" and the "Democrat leader," etc., as he did in almost his first words at the press conference today?

Dan Froomkin: I think someone should.

He did in fact continue to use that term today, when it's an obvious attempt to be derogatory to the Democratic Party. (The subtle message: They're not democratic.) Didn't fit with the rest of his message.

So which one is sincere?


D.C.: Dan,

Regarding your statement: Maybe I'm just in shock, and I'll regret this in the morning. But I think this election has been very good for him.

Perhaps your expectations are lowered? He still repeated himself and sounded defensive, with some high pitches. His jokes were funny and his dig at Rove took me a bit by surprise.

Dan Froomkin: That's a possibility.


Rumsfeld resigns: Now maybe all the wackos will stop being afraid that Bush will appoint Lieberman in order to shift the balance of power in the Senate.

Dan Froomkin: Yup. The more likely thing for "wackos" to fear is that Lieberman will stay in the Senate -- but bolt the Democratic party.


Central, Tex.: I wonder if Karl Rove's ultra-divisive tactics that kept the Bush presidency afloat for the past 6 years are entirely dependent on having control of the Congress - If that's the case, it'll be interesting to see what he comes up with now that he can't thumb his nose at the Dems without legislative repercussions.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting, indeed. They had no need to work with the Democrats, so the demonizing was just a win-win.

This is big.


Philadelphia: Do you in any way feel personal vindication today?

Dan Froomkin: I don't advocate partisan causes.

As a concerned journalist, I do, however, advocate accountability and oversight. I've been distressed about Bush's state of denial. And I've advocated that he be more straightforward with the public.

So to that extent, today is bringing more than a little vindication, yes.


3825 Wisconsin: E. All of the above

Dan Froomkin: Thanks, Sidwell.


Airville, Pa.: Dan,

I really don't understand how anybody could say that President Bush was anything but a babbling idiot during his news conference today. He was defensive, argumentative and down-right rude throughout the ordeal. Where you watching the same news conference I was?

Dan Froomkin: Maybe I was suffering from low blood sugar.


Sewickley, Pa.: Dan, the Rumsfeld resignation reinforces for our military family that the troops in the field are paying every step of the way for decisions that driven by a political timetable. Do you think the president's credibility is salvageable?

Dan Froomkin: That's another danger of the Rumsfeld resignation. Here Bush has been saying things on the ground in Iraq don't change for political reasons, then does something very big that certainly looks political. But you'd rather he "stayed the course"?


Vetoes or constitutional crisis?: Let's pretend Congress passes legislation that Bush does not care for. Does he repeatedly whip out the veto pen or does he create ever more comprehensive signing statements? And then act on them creating a Constitutional showdown?

Dan Froomkin: Well, there's nothing unconstitutional about exercising his veto.


Berkeley, Calif.: In his comments today, the President told the terrorists not to rejoice, the Iraqis not to worry, and the troops not to be doubtful. This is perhaps not as overt as saying a vote for the Democrats was a vote for terrorists (the campaign is over, don't you know), but it is not a very conciliatory note to start off his last two years. He also continued his strawman arguments about the Democrats' point of view (i.e., that they do not want to provide the tools for the war on terror). Does he still think he can bully Congress?

Dan Froomkin: You could see it that way. You could also see it as his way of saying to the terrorists and the Iraqis and the troops that "Campaigner Bush" was just full of baloney.

You're definitely right about the straw man, though. But I think that was the only one, in 45 whole minutes!


Washington, D.C.: Dan you advocate accountability, and that happens in elections. Like yesterday's. It also happened in 2004. You just didn't like the result of that one, and it's been crystal clear in every one of your chats. Your opinions are ideologically based and it would be nice if you would be honest with the rest of us and admit it.

Dan Froomkin: You are welcome to believe that.

When I was talking about accountability, I wasn't talking about the election itself as much as I was about there being a Congress which will now actually conduct oversight. There is no way you can argue that the 2004 election resulted in any of that.


Lake Forest, Calif.: Hello.....I think Nancy Pelosi should write a letter requesting that the President no longer refer to the "Democrat Party". Not only is it insulting to the leaders of the party it is insulting to all of us who belong to the Democratic Party.

Thank you for your time.

Dan Froomkin: I wonder if that will come up over lunch.


Vienna, Va.: Oh please if y'all are so worried about the words "Democrat Party" stuff, you need to take off and go get a drink.

And let's give it a few days before we judge everyone's sincerity. Democratic leaders haven't exactly been eager to play cooperative before -- witness Leahy's stalling on judges -- but maybe there will proof enough in the pudding for everyone.

With that cliche dispensed with, I'm opening the bottle. Dan, want some?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, let's not jump to conclusions quite yet. Thanks.

And yeah, apparently my blood sugar is low. So cheers!


Iowa: What hearings are likely to take place first as Congress belatedly begins exercising some oversight? Supposedly Cheney has said he would not respond if (when?) a House committee subpoenaed him for information.

Dan Froomkin: There's a lot of oversight that can be done without subpoenaing the White House.

Here's one good list, from Andrew Rudalevige, author of 'The New Imperial Presidency,' over on my other Web site, NiemanWatchdog.org.


Bethesda, Md.: Compare and contrast Bush's "plain speaking, when I say it I mean it" persona with his "say what I need to today and say something else tomorrow" persona.

Dan Froomkin: Good point.


Ballston, Va.: Allow me to interject myself into this liberal groupthink for a sec. If Rummy had resigned before the election, Froomkin and the rest of the WH press corps would have been howling that this was a cheap political stunt designed to save face just before a bad election. The fact that the announcement was deferred until after the election was probably a prudent recognition that there was no way Dubya could win on this politically because his motives would be picked apart regardless of what he did or when he did it.

Dan Froomkin: I don't entirely disagree with that.


Bethesda, Md.: I completely agree with you. The president's demeanor was totally different. I found it particularly interesting when he suggested that he was looking forward to seeing the legislation that will be crafted by both Democrats and republicans. Of course in the formally Republican house, Democrats were not able to submit or contribute to the legislation.

Dan Froomkin: I'm so relieved. I was starting to worry that I had made the whole thing up.


Karl Rove: I think cheerleader-in-chief. There is no way they didn't anticipate losing the House. I think the routing was worse than they expected, and you're right, I think the "thumpin" was a wake up call to Bush. We still won't like a lot of what he does, but I have hope he won't be as extreme.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Bethesda, Md.: I don't get your idea that "Campaigner Bush" can just say whatever he wants because, you know, he's campaigning. Perhaps he can wear a sign that tells us when he's campaigning (or, you know, lying).

Dan Froomkin: I didn't say it was OK.

But I like the idea of a sign.


Barcelona, Spain: Throughout the campaign the President and other White House officials have granted exclusive interviews to several journalists/talk-show hosts/bloggers, all or practically all of which represent conservative media outlets or are openly Republican partisans. Couldn't this form of discrimination by the Executive be considered somewhat undemocratic? If the answer is yes, how come (apparently) nobody in the press has raised the issue?

Dan Froomkin: Undemocratic? No. Incredibly self-serving for the White House, certainly. And a profound example of how having a thriving, shameless right-wing media is a tremendous asset to a Republican president.

I do think the very existence of these interviews merited more attention from the traditional media and the public. Can anyone conceive of a Democratic president agreeing only to speak to lickspittles? Indeed, are there any left-wing major media figures who would ask softball after softball of a Democrat, like Bush can expect from these guys?

Also, as a journalist, I'm horrified. Even right-wing journalists (real journalists) could come up with plenty of tough questions for Bush. These guys were almost entirely acting as partisans, not journalists.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: I work in an office full of Republicans so I am trying very hard not to gloat, its not easy!....my question is, now that the Democrats have a majority in Congress and perhaps the Senate - can we overturn, throw out, re-do - whatever - the Military Commissions Act? What would that entail? Dan - thanks so much for all of your hard work - without your column I would not have made it to November 7th!

Dan Froomkin: Glad I could help.

There may be only so much Democrats can do. They certainly don't have a veto-proof majority in either House.

Could they pass something that Bush would sign? Hard to imagine. But if Bush isn't listening to Cheney anymore....


New Haven, Conn.: On the subject of Cheney leaving -- don't you think he'll stay just to make impeaching Bush less palatable to the Dems?

Dan Froomkin: Funny. It is certainly a powerful disincentive for them now.


Kinder, Gentler Dubya and Immigration: One reporter hit on a key subject: Bush may actually be relieved that a Democrat Congress is more likely to work with him on immigration reform.

Dan Froomkin: Absolutely.


Cynical, USA: Here's my take on the Rumsfeld ouster. He is getting the boot to deny the Dems a chance to question him at official Congressional hearings. Now they gotta talk to the new guy.

Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Cynical, indeed.

But not necessarily crazy.


Washington, D.C.: Is this new Bush perhaps inspired on the Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger playbook on how to recover from really bad elections? About a year ago everyone was writing off the Gov. following his electoral rout.

Dan Froomkin: If there were a New Bush, then New Ahnold would definitely be a potential source of inspiration. Good point.


Boca Raton, Fla.: How much longer is Karl Rove's shelf life?

I personally do not see a position for him any longer, do you?

Dan Froomkin: "Shelf Life" -- I think that's a good new nickname for Karl Rove.

OK, thanks everyone for all the wonderful questions and comments. Come back tomorrow to read my column (which is on the home page every weekday afternoon). Maybe I'll have made sense of some of this by then.


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